The fact that this latest outing from the boys at Pixar was chosen to open this year’s Cannes (one of, if not the most prestigious and art-oriented festivals on the calendar) shows just how far animation has come in the ten short years since the epic bedroom set tale of Woody and Buzz took us to infinity and beyond – not only in terms of technological advancements, but also in storytelling and how we regard the medium. Few today would dare question the notion that animation has evolved into a fully realized art form.
Pixar too has come a long way, having steadily evolved over a decade and refined its singular technique of employing everything from insects and rodents, to robots and race cars to tell simple parables of life’s struggle and the dreams we strive to attain. Having reached a peak in terms of pure commercialism with Cars in 2006, Pixar has dialed it down a little and begun to look backwards in time for inspiration. Much as WALL-E drew from the likes of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Up too draws from the silent classics for its own opening salvo.
Following an intro of newsreel footage about famed but disgraced explorer Charles Muntz gazed up at in awe by a our pint-sized protagonist Carl Fredrickson come five beautiful, spellbinding, wordless minutes where his entire life is played out in pictures. Carl meets his beloved Ellie, herself an avid explorer, and they get hitched, take jobs at the zoo (Carl sells balloons), plan for a family that tragically never comes, and plan for a trip to Paradise Falls in Muntz’s honor that the practical necessities of life sadly see never materializes, and duly grow old together before Ellie finally passes away leaving Carl all alone. It’s a masterful montage of hope and possibility, tinged with harsh concessions to reality that cements Pixar as masters of visually emotive storytelling.
Fleeing the demolition of his house and a court ordered trip to a retirement community, Carl tethers thousands of balloons to his ramshackle cottage and takes off for the wilds of South America, determined to plant the house at the peak of Paradise Falls like Ellie always dreamed they would. If the seventy-eight year old protagonist didn’t clue you in already, then lets be clear that this is Pixar’s most adult film to date. With a story that touches on issues of infertility, false heroes, broken families and deadbeat dads, there are thematic waves here that would swallow dear Mickey whole. But it’s with the introduction of an overly talkative stowaway in the form of roly-poly wilderness explorer Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) that Up comes back down to Earth and comfortably back into formula as the pair somewhat predictably fall into the routine of the odd couple.
The untamed wilderness offers a treacherous encounter with the exiled and obviously batty Charles Muntz (some excellent ham-fisted ire from Christopher Plummer), a new four-legged best friend (read: irritant if you’re Carl) in the form of Dug – brainless runt of Muntz’s talking canine army on the hunt for a rare bird that just happens to be Russell’s new best friend (named Kevin, even though it’s a female). It’s here that the film finds its top gear and a breathtaking chase that sees Carl and the gang flee Muntz’s minions over the rocky cliff tops – half-tethered to the house half on birdback – is a kinetic highpoint that’s as exhilarating as anything in the realm of live action stunts, even if it does somewhat morph Carl into Jon McClane with a bus pass.
But Pixar films are all about wonder and wonder is nothing if not ageless, and as such the best moments in Up are those that are most silent; the opening montage, the explosion of light and color as the balloons unfurl, the sight of Carl thumbing through Ellie’s adventure book as his eyes well up gazing down at pictures of happiness remembered and a life of love shared. Finally the sight of Carl and Ellie’s house, sat atop Paradise Falls. Empty, but where it belongs.
Starring: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo
Director: Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson
Runtime: 96 Minutes